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Mazda Protege5 Sport Wagon (2002)

by Carey Russ

What do you get when you cross a compact wagon with a Miata? A Mazda Protege5.

Mazda's newest vehicle defies easy classification. If you think of small wagons as utilitarian transportation, glorified econoboxes, think again. If you think of sports cars as impractical toys, expand your thinking. The Protege5 combines the practicality, versatility, and economy of its namesake compact five-door body style with sporty style and the fun-to-drive character of a true sports car. Sport wagons already are an accepted automotive genre in Europe and Japan, and there are a few expensive European entries in the class here. But with a base price well under $17,000, the Protege5 brings the fun to the masses.

With the Protege5, Mazda has found an unexploited niche in the automotive marketplace. Currently, it has no direct competition. Even three-door hatchbacks are a rarity in the U.S. Will it be successful? I've already seen a few on the street. A week of driving one showed all of the utility of a small wagon -- space for four real people, or even five in a pinch, good cargo ability and versatility, easy parking, and good fuel economy -- and it was almost as much fun to drive its cousin, the Mazda Miata. Boredom is not in the design spec. If the Mazda Protege5 foreshadows a new class of affordable, economical sport wagons, all the better for all of us.

APPEARANCE: Like any other small wagon, the Protege5 has a two-box shape that is more hatchback than classic wagon. It is slightly rounded at the edges and corners, balanced with crisp, angular character lines and highlights. Its performance intent is illustrated with all of the contemporary styling cues. The Mazda signature five-point grille is blacked out except for the corporate logo, and is flanked by large, multi-element headlights. The flat front fascia has the look of a race or rally car air dam, and incorporates a large secondary intake and foglamps. It protrudes slightly at the bottom, and blends with the fender flares and extended side sills. A visor-type spoiler is found over the backlight. The monochrome color scheme and five-spoke alloy wheels complete the look. A matte-black roof rack highlights the Protege5's practical side.

COMFORT: Inside, the Protege5 is equipped above its relatively inexpensive station, and has all of the contemporary sports styling cues. As might be expected, the "titanium" around the window lifts and the center stack in the instrument panel, and the "carbon fiber" flanking the center stack are really plastic, but they, and suede-like inserts in the door panels, add interest to the interior. Upholstery is grippy cloth. The front sport buckets are supportive and bolstered. The driver gets cushion height and tilt adjustment, classic-looking black-on-white instruments, and a leather-covered steering wheel rim. A large locking glovebox, CD-sized console box, and door pockets provide useful storage. There is greater head and leg room than expected in the 60/40 split rear seat. Two adults shorter than six feet, or three children, fit easily, with ample covered storage behind, and the possibility of more with the rear seat folded. No compromises necessary.

SAFETY: The Protege5 uses Mazda's "Triple-H" design for a sturdy safety structure around the passengers, with front and rear crumple zones. Side airbags and antilock brakes are available.

ROADABILITY: In ride and handling, the Protege5 is much closer to a performance hatchback than a wagon. The chassis is commendably rigid, with a front strut tower brace added for extra stiffness, and the fully-independent strut-type suspension is tuned for sporty handling. It's firm for great handling, but has good real-world compliance for comfort. Four-wheel disc brakes stop quickly and efficiently. It's nimble, tossable, and too much fun.

PERFORMANCE: The Protege5's 2.0-liter twincam, 16-valve four- cylinder engine feels stronger than its specs of 130 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 135 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm might indicate. A light flywheel and acceleration-friendly 4.1:1 final drive ratio help it spin up to speed quickly. It's at its best a low to medium engine speeds, perfect for playing on sports car roads or getting through traffic. The standard five-speed manual gearbox shifts well and has a good choice of gear ratios, also helping performance.

CONCLUSIONS: The Mazda Protege5 combines the usefulness of a small wagon with the spirit of a Miata.

2002 Mazda Protege5 Sport Wagon

Base Price              $ 16,335
Price As Tested         $ 18,395
Engine Type             dual overhead cam inline 4-cylinder
Engine Size             2.0 liters / 121 cu. in.
Horsepower              130 @ 6000 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)          135 @ 4000 rpm
Transmission            5-speed manual
Wheelbase / Length      102.8 in. / 170.5 in.
Curb Weight             2716 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower   20.9
Fuel Capacity           14.5 gal.
Fuel Requirement        unleaded regular gasoline, 89 octane
Tires                   P195/50 VR16 Dunlop SP Sport 5000M m+s
Brakes, front/rear      vented disc / solid disc, antilock optional
Suspension, front/rear  independent MacPherson strut /
                          independent struts with twin 
                          trapezoidal links
Drivetrain              front engine, front-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed      25 / 31 / 27
0 to 60 mph            est 8.5  sec

carpeted floor mats                 $  80
antilock brakes with side airbags   $ 800
power sliding glass moonroof        $ 700
destination charge                  $ 450